My Parish Priest Died
My parish priest died in February. Leukemia, relatively quickly it seems based on his obituary. He wasn’t my most recent parish priest, but he was the first priest I knew when I first started attending church as a tiny thing that needed to stand on the kneelers in order to properly participate in mass.
He was the priest I associated with my parish for a long time before he moved to a rural parish. He was the first priest I altar served with. Before I altar served and spent mass time doing that, I’d attend a sort of Sunday school version during mass. Father used to announce at the beginning of mass that it was time for Children’s Liturgy, which offered a simplified version of the gospel and homily, and as I and the other children of the parish gathered around him he’d usually ask us some questions that would be related to the gospel before we followed our liturgy leader to the meeting area of the church. At the end of mass my dad, sister, and I would speak to Father, even if my sister and I had been altar serving and spoken to him already. If it was cold Father wore a black cloak outside when he said goodbye to his clergy.
When my sister first started getting sick at thirteen and was hospitalized numerous times, she missed mass. She couldn’t altar serve, couldn’t attend youth group or be as involved with the church as we were at that time. But there was one Saturday evening during this time when she wasn’t in the hospital, when she came back to mass. She didn’t serve, she wasn’t feeling well enough for that, but she sat in the front pew with our dad, our regular spot. During the Offering of Peace Father came up to our pew and shook her hand, welcoming her back to the church and wishing her better health in a handshake.
I was serving on the altar with him when he told the parish he was leaving. He was reading the last announcements for the end of mass from the book I leaned against my forehead. He had a piece of paper with the announcements typed on it that he placed in the book, I don’t remember him walking to the pulpit to read the announcements, and so I heard his voice get choked up and I remember my heart sinking when he told us. I remember when he finished telling us I lowered the book and saw how sad he looked as he looked out at the clergy. He didn’t stay to talk to the altar servers at the end of mass like usual, too many people in the parish to talk to, but we gathered and talked about our shock about him leaving. The next priest who came after him was wonderful, a man I respect and look to very highly after the care he gave my mom as she was dying, but this post isn’t about him.
My parish was unique in a way, that instead of a tiny house connected to the church, Father had his own house in a neighbourhood a little ways from the church, a house with a big blue door. Whenever the Youth Group or altar servers would have celebrations, he’d host them at his house where he’d barbeque us burgers. This sentence has, no doubt, conjured many dark images, but it wasn’t like that. Father hosted us in his backyard, with other adults present. The altar servers and youth group hung out with each other. We played games, we performed skits. We had fun. I felt safe.
Every week in the church bulletin he would write a short column called “From Where I Sit” about things he would notice or think on during mass. I was too young to care about his writings then. Before he was a priest he was an English teacher. My dad always said his section of the bulletin was well-written, that he always enjoyed Father’s homilies because they were concise and to the point. I remember he used to reference other things in his homilies, To Kill a Mockingbird, an old film called Laura. I didn’t pay enough attention then to know why they were relevant to the gospel.
I haven’t been to church in a long time. Nowadays, I go to church when I don’t have any choice in the matter. For funerals, for weddings, for when I make a desperate prayer and bargain with God to heal someone I care about and agree to go to church for a month in 2018 if he does. I found out about Father’s death too late and was working during his visitation and funeral mass.
I saw him though, twice, long after I had stopped going to mass. Once was at a theatre where I got free tickets to see Elf: the musical (it was bad) and he was sitting a few rows ahead of my sister and I. I didn’t recognize him at first, he wasn’t wearing the black button-up shirt, black pants, and clerical collar I recognized him in but a kilt. He was always donating money to the arts, he loved theatre, but because I couldn’t fully recognize him, I made an excuse for myself that I couldn’t re-introduced myself. Because what if it wasn’t him?
The second was more recent, a couple years back when I was working at a vaccine clinic. I saw him just as he was leaving, wearing a coat and walking with a cane. I recognized him just as he was slowly walking away. I could have caught up to him, but I again made the excuse that he had better places to be. That he had a cane, and it didn’t seem fair to stop him as he was leaving.
Truthfully, I was worried he wouldn’t remember me. And then I was worried he would, if he would ask me about church, what he might think of my (then) green-hair. I had changed a lot since I served for Father, questioned my faith and grown cynical of the church and abandoned it while also simultaneously deeply missing it.
I miss him, and I miss the way that the church used to make me feel, the comfort it brought me. It may have been many years since I last saw him, but whenever I thought back to my time in the church it brought me comfort. I always imagined I’d see Father again, that we’d know each other and remember. But what good was imagining? I had been given two opportunities and denied him twice.
I wish I could have gone to the visitation, wish that I had in fact said hi those two times I saw him. I regret that I let my fear win, that old familiar Catholic shame twisted in my gut and that the thought of saying hello felt more confessional than friendly.
I wish I had said hello, and I wish that I had gotten the chance to say goodbye.
I hope that he’s happy and at peace. I hope that, if it’s real, he’s in Heaven.
Thanks for reading A Little Bit of Everything! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.